Wednesday, September 28, 2005

On Writing

I've lately been basking in the glow of numerous complimentary comments regarding my writing abilities. I admit it is gratifying. Mostly because I really do love to write, and I'm grateful that people not only read what I pen, but sometimes take the time to comment on it, too.

Recently someone asked me "what was the first thing you ever wrote?" No doubt it was my name on a wall, probably upon freshly hung wallpaper. After that, my early memory fails me. I remember sitting and writing things, as other kids preferred to draw. My entire family loved to read, and I would try to concoct my own stories sometimes. My sister and I took our love for reading to strange level when we used to play library. We pasted pockets in the back of all our books, with a cardboard check-out card we'd "stamp", to check out the books. We each wanted to be a libararian until we found out you needed a master's degree in library science (what science?). I settled for working in the high school library, instead. And you can't say we weren't inventive, though slightly strange, children.

I do know that in grade school I wrote a little story, the words and even the title of which I forget, but the gist of the plot centered on the observations of a mouse aboard Columbus's ship coming to the New World. This much I know because my grandmother referred to it numerous times in years afterward, telling me how clever it was and that I should be a writer.

After that, in middle school, I wrote a short story for a school contest. Again, the title is lost to me, but it was selected as a runner-up in the contest and I, along with a couple other schoolmates, was taken to a conference at the University of Toledo, with nun in tow, to compete at the state level. I remember having to read a portion of my story aloud, and I became so nervous that I stammered and shook and thought I was going to throw up. I didn't, thankfully; nor did I win the contest. But these are evidences of an early gifting, so I like to think.

For reasons beyond my comprehension, my dear mother did not save these early literary efforts. Gold spray-painted, glued-together pieces of macaroni on construction paper she kept for years, though. Sighhhhhh. What could she have been thinking?

Maybe because of these losses, I saved nearly every essay and term paper I wrote in college. I wanted evidence of my abilities and hard work, each clever turn of a word. They piled up and after graduation, Bryan insisted that I should weed them out and throw them away. This from a third-generation pack rat! I balked. But I went through them, squirreling away the ones I was most proud of and discarding the rest. To be honest, I am sure I would never have referred to them again. But still.

Writing has always been an activity I've enjoyed and was thrilled to employ it during jobs. When I was asked to write a newsletter for the travel agency I worked at, I leaped at it (and for joy) and cranked it out in just under three hours. My boss was duly impressed. Then he proceeded to make changes. I was aghast. How dare he? My brilliant work! In the end, of course, we compromised and the newsletter had the small town, home-spun voice he was always trying to portray (despite his being a former corporate mogul from the New York area). But it was good for business and it was good for the newsletter to carry that through as part of the overall marketing plan. And it was good for me, to get used to working with editors and critics. Well, I may never get entirely used to it, but it prepared me for the inevitability of it, nonetheless.

Beginning the blog was a challenge. I was used to having to write on specific subjects. In college: Describe the political forces at work in the Cold War, using as many primary sources as possible. Write a well-researched thesis on a little-known battle taking place on American soil (I chose the Battle of Lake Erie, which was a naval battle but qualified nonetheless). At the agency, I wrote on specific travel destinations we were highlighting, or doled out packing tips. I had assignments, and I took to the task easily.

But more creative writing - personal essays especially - seemed intimidating. It has been a good exercise for me. I've had to not only open up more about myself, something I am usually hesitant to do (what if people think I'm, like, weird or something?), but I've had to search for topics without having them assigned to me. And I do confess that I sometimes feel competely uninspired. The past two weeks have been rather dry. I've considered and discarded a dozen potential topics. One seemed promising, but I couldn't really give it enough "meat" to be a satisifying length. But that, too, has helped me hone my skills and look more closely at things around me as future fodder.

When I lag in topics, I write other things. During this recent dry time, I've focused my energy on writing an article I promised for a travel website. Topic: New Mexico's Native Places. An assignment so to speak, though the initial idea was mine. But I had committed myself to write it. And I know the material. Very little research is involved and I can continue to write. I have jotted down several ideas to pitch to magazines and wrote a couple queries. That is, while I actually had writer's block, in practice I was still writing and that made me feel productive.

So I am a writer. It's my passion, even when I'm not garnering compliments, and even when I don't feel very passionate about a topic or when I lag in ideas. A few months ago one friend began reading the blog and emailed, "This is really good. You could be a writer." I wrote back, "I am a writer. I write, therefore I am."

copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider

Monday, September 12, 2005

Football Freaks

Autumn is upon us and so is football season, as I have daily proof. I am surrounded by football fanatics.

It started last week when Bryan pointed out to me that the UNM Lobos were playing a rare daytime game on Labor Day, and, he added, we should go. Most of our games are played in the evening, the reason for which I am unsure. While it is true that it can still be hot this time of year, when October games are played in the chilly dark night air, I’m not too inclined to want to shiver my way through a game. Besides, it feels too much like a high school game when it is played at night. Bryan got the tickets and we went to see the ESPN-televised game against UNLV. I was impressed by the display of team spirit. Despite the searing heat 33,000 fans dressed in silver and cherry were there rooting loudly and doing the “Lobo howl”. Gone are the days when we attended games with a few hundred other fans, obtaining free admission to the stadium with a canned food donation, which happened frequently when I began my studies at UNM in 1988.

The Lobos won by 2 points, but the game served as a reminder that my sister is not just a football fan, she is a rabid fan. Her screams and living room-pacing are legendary. At one point in the game she screamed so long and so hard trying to distract UNLV’s offense that I fear the poor old couple in front of us suffered permanent hearing loss. The scream started low then gained in magnitude and pitch until it reached a level that only dogs could hear.

Football is the one sport I don’t mind watching. Basketball…forget it, too much like watching tennis. Baseball…too long and drawn out, I get bored by the bottom of the fourth and wish I’d just stayed home. But for some reason, football can hold my interest, so long as it’s a team I like, otherwise why bother.

I was groomed to be a football fan early on, though. Growing up in northern Ohio, we were good little Browns and Buckeyes fans from an early age. My wayward brother somehow became a Notre Dame fan; we’re not sure how that happened. We learned all the words to the “other”, obscenity-laced Michigan fight song at age 8 or 9. (Yes, that version! Cara would have learned it at around age 5!). I knew all the NFL team names and my father would entertain his beer-hall buddies by having me recite them with promptings. Him: Detroit. Me: Lions. It’s always a nice thing to drag your daughters along to the bar to delight your cronies, a childhood memory that now makes me think I should have sought therapy.

I had a set of pom-poms and cheered for the Buckeyes. I could sing the Ohio State Fight Song (the real version). I learned about fumbles and penalties. But I didn’t have the same passion that my sister acquired. And she took her obsession to deeper levels. She recently admitted that she had a wild crush on Brian Sipe, then stated matter-of-factly, “but then every little girl who loved football was in love with Brian Sipe.” Uh, yeah, and just how many of you little football-lovin’ girls were there?! Her Ken doll was “Brian”. In football season if we were out playing with the neighbor kids, she would dart home before the opening kick. She quickly acquired rivalry hatreds, and we could scarcely mention Cincinnati or Pittsburgh without a diatribe about the shortcomings of those cities’ teams. Her dog is named Bernie. (As in Kosar.) When the Browns were unceremoniously snatched from Cleveland, she wore black to work in mourning. When Cleveland acquired a new team she beamed, “Light has come! Football has returned to Cleveland!” She really ought to get a job with a team and get paid for her fanaticism.

Bryan is no less enthusiastic, just quieter. He will ditch whatever plans or commitments he may have made if the Browns or the Buckeyes are on TV. He will, on occasion, try to help the team out by diving off the sofa to grab for a fumble or try to catch a pass, but he’s usually more sedate, offering frequent “go, go, gos” or moans of disdain. He spends hours of his time online reading about football or in front of the TV watching football. It scarcely matters what team is playing. His home office is a shrine to Ohio State, with posters, photos, a piece of the stadium, and a votive candle in front of a statuette of Woody Hayes. When games are not going so well, he brings the statuette into the living room and places it in front of the TV, hoping to turn the tide.

Football freaks, they are. For the next few months I will be remembering the words to the Buckeye Battle Cry, making snacks, and watching games. In my house one has little choice; one must give in and join ranks. And get a pair of earplugs - my sister’s screams are deafening. As some poor old couple in Albuquerque can testify.

copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider

Tuesday, September 06, 2005


We've been shedding quite a few tears this week. Our beloved 16 year old tabby cat, Winston, went missing last Tuesday. We've been unable to locate him despite a frantic search.

I let him out in the front, gated courtyard like always. It has a wall and he loved sitting out there gazing out the gate into the sagebrush, watching the rabbits hop about, or just lounging and enjoying the outdoors scents. He'd stick his nose up in the air and sniff as he bobbed his head slightly. Often, I'd take my coffee out and sit, too, enjoying the morning air and quiet.

Tuesday morning I let him out there and left the front door open, but came back inside to make a phone call. While I was on hold (trying to find out why the new computer I ordered was delayed), I heard a shuffling around in the landscaping rocks, so, phone to my ear and still in my jammies, I poked my head out the door to see what he was doing that was creating a raucous. I just heard the shuffling and then saw fur going over the wall. My view was limited as I was gazing through a pinon tree outside the door; I just saw something jumping over the wall.

Now, Winston has never tried to jump the wall before. Admittedly, the back courtyard has a higher wall than the front, but he's been out front frequently and never once attempted to scale the thing. And, his normal routine - if he did go after something, like a lizard- would be to give a brave attempt to catch it, then give up quickly and go back to lying down and sniffing the air. So it was a shock that he'd wrestle with something and follow it over the wall.

I screamed for Bryan, threw down the phone and ran to get some shoes and clothes on. I wish now I'd just run out there barefoot, but if you've ever stepped on tumbleweed prickers you'll understand my hesitation. Besides, I figured he was just sitting out there. It took only about 20 seconds for Bryan to get his shoes on and go outside, but there was no sight of him. I joined the search and turned frantic quickly when we didn't see him among the brush. I called my sister to come help. The three of us methodically tromped all over the sage in and around our lot for two hours, but he seemed to have simply vanished. We couldn't find or hear him anywhere. We couldn't figure out what happened or where he could have gone. I couldn't be sure if Winston went after something, or something was after him. We'll probably never know. The only thing I learned during the search stomping all over the sagebrush was that I am, indisputably, allergic to sagebrush. Nice. I'm surrounded by the stuff.

Cara made up fliers for us to post around the neighborhood. We left the gates and doors open all day, hoping he'd return. I would go out and listen, figuring if he got himself lost he'd start crying or meowing. He was certainly vocal enough at home. Nothing. We started to fear, and in the morning when he'd not returned I started the crying that would come every day after that whenever I thought of the poor old guy "out there somewhere".

We'd had a call from one lady on the next street over and a little ways west of us, saying she had seen a cat on her wall that may have been Winston. We ran over and started a sneezy search of the sagebrush in that sector of the neighborhood. Her neighbor across the street was out, so I went to ask if she'd seen a cat. "Just my own," she told me. So I told her about Winston and she said, "well, that describes my cat". So, after seeing there was a resemblance, though Winston has more white, we think the caller may have seen her neighbor's cat instead of ours. We were crestfallen.

The hardest part has been the reaction of friends and neighbors. Why must every person I talk to point out that "there are coyotes out there". Yeah, we know. Hello, we've lived here 18 years. We know that; thanks for your comforting words. One lady said, "oh well, just get another cat," as if this one had no meaning or emotional attachment for us after 16 years of companionship. Not helpful. He's been our baby, a part of our family; he's not 'just a cat' or easily replaced. Why is concern over or even mourning for a pet considered unseemly or overly emotional? I've been missing my faithful feline friend and crying for him, and I don't think that's a bad thing. One neighbor said they had lost three cats. Like it was no big deal! I can't understand the detachment and apparent lack of caring.

Bryan rode his bike every morning all over the area looking for him, and saw two coyotes in the vicinity. We know that he's old, he's declawed, and he's hard of hearing...not good odds. But still, every day I open the door frequently, still wanting to see him turn up and meow at me, vocalizing his desire for his canned food. It's been a week now. I don't have much hope. But I do wish he'd turn up. He was a good kitty and a purrful, faithful friend. I miss him.

copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider